It came as no surprise to me to learn that the Tokyo Olympics will continue in spite of Covid, albeit without foreign fans in attendance. This is yet another example of the continuation of professional sporting events through the pandemic, which saw episodes such as Australia allowing foreign tennis stars to attend the Australian Open while denying their own citizens the right to re-enter the country, and the politically motivated pressure to convene the “Big Ten” college football tournament in the U.S. Most recently, we saw a crowd of over 38,000, most of whom not wearing masks, convene for a baseball game in Texas (a U.S. state notorious for its anti-science “public health” posture, led by corporate stooge Greg Abbott). While the playing of sports during the pandemic does has many benefits, including distraction and stress relief for viewers at home, it is important to recognize the reason behind the insistence that the game continues at the cost of other, more critical measures such as family reunification travel, and social distancing measures. The reason is not all that surprising because it is yet another example of a centuries-long trend in the elevation of the profit motive above all other concerns that the capitalist economic system inflicts upon working people.
The insane money behind sports
The money that is made during the presentation of a professional sporting event is truly staggering. Spending for the 2018 Men’s World Cup reached 350 million USD (spending for the Women’s World Cup reached “only” 96 million USD–some obvious conclusions can be drawn from this). The price of a thirty-second TV commercial spot for the 2020 Super Bowl cost 5.6 million USD. In 2019, the entire sports advertising industry in the United States spent 5.4 billion USD. These are truly stupefying amounts that it is difficult for most people to conceptualize. It is similarly important to consider the human cost behind the scenes of these mass sports spectacles. Preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar are currently underway, which see migrant laborers working to build a state-of-the-art stadium and other venues while living in squalid barracks and exposed to 40+ degrees Celsius (104+ Fahrenheit) temperatures. 6,500 migrant workers, laboring under appalling conditions, have died during the construction project. 6,500 lives for a sporting event. And construction is still underway.
As a grotesque counterpart to the horrendous working conditions of the World Cup migrant workers, the salaries of professional athletes are consequently enormous, bordering on CEO pay. The highest-paid footballer in the world, Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona, receives a yearly salary of 92 million USD, with endorsements of 34 million USD bringing his total “earnings” to 126 million USD. For playing football. The minimum salary of a player in the U.S. National Football League (NFL) receives 610,000 USD. Again, for playing football (albeit a different type). The average salary for a player on my home team the Philadelphia Eagles is 3.91 million USD. Once again, for playing football.
When we compare these astronomical sums to the average salaries of, for example, nurses in Barcelona (38,030 EUR) or teachers in Philadelphia (63,174 USD–actually not bad for the U.S.), we see a disturbing, but not shocking gap. A system that pays players of games thousands of times more than it pays its nurses and teachers is clearly one with misplaced priorities, but this should not surprise us. Remembering that it is the function of capitalism to generate increasing sums of wealth for the owners of capital, the sale of advertising during sporting events is an enormously lucrative opportunity to generate profits. Hence, the “wage laborers” who facilitate the generation of these enormous profits, the athletes, receive an outsized compensation relative to their time and effort.
The connection between sports and economics may not seem clear at first. Aren’t sports just a fun pastime? Ideally, yes. However, everything is at its core a matter of economics. Karl Marx introduced the concept of the economic superstructure to define the concept that the relations of individuals to the means of production (i.e. a workplace) directly impact everything from the political system to family relations to religion. It is a logical extension of this argument to include professional sports in the equation. Because the working people do not play a role in deciding how money will be allocated by a stratified economic system from which we are excluded, we do not have the power to increase funding for schools or healthcare, or to increase our access to them. Thus, the wealthy few who do have this power are able to marshal resources for its continuing enrichment and continuing domination of political power. Hence, we see sports continuing at all costs while in many countries, for example my own, healthcare and education remain commodities too dear for many to afford.
This is not to denigrate athletes, who are out of rational self-interest taking advantage of the system that allows them to amass huge wealth. The system that produces such absurd sums of wealth for the personal consumption of a tiny fraction of the global population is at fault, because it is a system that skews priorities away from questions of critical life needs that benefit that vast majority of people, such as medical care and the education of our children, toward the continued bloated enrichment of a handful of profiteers who own, in this case, the means of producing mass entertainment.
Rethinking priorities means rethinking economics
The prioritization of fair compensation for frontline workers and family reunification will not occur as long as the profit motive remains central to economic activity. Similarly, because everything is at its heart an economic matter, neither politics nor culture will be able to realign themselves under the grinding lust of the profit motive. It is therefore vital that we rethink the relationship between work and remuneration. This begins with expanding our democratic rights as workers to influence our destiny through collaborative decision-making and shared rewards in the workplace and in our wider national economies.
It is only in a democratic system in which we the working people control our destinies, and work for the common good that we can prioritize the things that matter to us. Sports are great. I enjoy supporting my hometown teams as much as anyone else, but in the unprecedented times in which more than 2,867,242 people have at the time of writing already died–and I will not round the number so it is easier for readers to digest. Every digit in that grim sequence represents a life lost to the disease–and there is, at least in Europe, no end in sight. Humanity must set clear priorities that will save lives and minimize human suffering. Sports at any cost is not the way. Profit at any cost is not the way. The way forward is to orient our society around what is truly important, what will protect and enrich the lives of those who make it possible.
Thanks to Dillon C. for feedback on this piece.